26 February, 2019

The Meaning of Silence

Do you find Swedes unusually quiet? Do you often wonder why they are silent? What does it really mean when someone is not speaking? While silence is normal and seen as something positive in some cultures, silence can be more provocative and strange in other cultures. Also in Sweden, the meaning of silence can be different.

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Speech is silver, silence is golden says a proverb, and Swedes, in general, believe that you should only speak when you have something to say. If you don’t have anything to say, it’s better to remain silent. Basically, you don’t talk just for the sake of talking. 

Less is more?

In a discussion, being silent could mean that you agree but that you have nothing to add. Usually this silence is accompanied by discrete nodding and ‘mmming’, but this is not always obvious to newbies. 

Being silent in a discussion, for example during a meeting at work, could mean that you totally disagree. You may have a different opinion but feel uncomfortable speaking up in front of a group and you’re afraid of a conflict. 

Being silent could also just mean that you need more time to think about the topic being discussed, time to collect more information and reflect before deciding which side you’re on. If you’re shy and reserved, you may not like to talk a lot in a larger group of people at all.

If you think that a conversation topic is totally unnecessary, ridiculous and a waste of time – getting into the discussion is below your dignity and will only prolong the meeting.

How to understand the silence

Sometimes silence is considered a sign of disinterest and a person who doesn’t talk is a person who is not involved, engaged, ambitious and confident.

In Sweden, it’s disrespectful to talk too much and to interrupt another person talking. The number of seconds people feel comfortable in silence before they think they should say something, also varies between cultures. Swedes are fairly comfortable with silent breaks in a conversation. When interacting with Swedes, take a moment to think about other explanations before jumping to any conclusions.

So what do you do if you’re not sure what the silence means? What if you want to know what this quiet Swedish person really thinks? How can you encourage a Swede to speak? Well…just ask. But remember that a Swede might be more comfortable one on one in an informal setting. In other words: have a fika with the Swedes and find out what’s behind the silence. 

Don’t forget to check Swedish with Mumm website to learn more about the Swedish culture. Write in your comments what silence means in your culture and if you find it confusing in Sweden.

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Nina Mumm
Hello! I am a Swedish language consultant and cross-cultural trainer who has many years of experience working with expat clients in Sweden. My professional focus continues to be teaching Swedish with a cross-cultural approach and supporting international clients in their adaptation to the Swedish culture.

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